|South Bend, Indiana. Temple Beth El. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1947. Photo: Bigby Photo co. in Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art, 106|
New Exhibit in Leeds Highlights Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe (1918-2006)
by Samuel D. Gruber
A new exhibition at The University of Leeds (England) celebrates the work of American born and trained artist Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe. She was born January 1, 1918 and studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1930 to 1933 and then at Columbia University from 1935, where she received her M.A. in 1940. Read more about her life here.
Mitzi Solomon was already beginning a notable career in America when she married historian Marcus Cunliffe in 1949, and moved to England, her home for the rest of her long life. I assume Solomon Cunliffe was Jewish by birth, or that at least her father (Abraham Solomon) was (if anyone knows for sure, let me know). She was one of small group of American women sculptors who contributed modern art to modern synagogues, something she seems ot have done only before her move to England.
South Bend, Indiana. Temple Beth El. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1947-1950. Photo: Temple Beth El website.
Cunliffe contributed a striking relief to the entrance area of Temple Beth El in South Bend, Indiana in 1947. The synagogue, designed by architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett, was among the first modernist synagogues built after World War II. The relief represents the roots and branches of a tree, with the branches intertwined into an abstract design over which is laid a much smaller, narrow set of stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, inscribed with the first letters in Hebrew. In the words of Avram Kampf "It is quite possible that the artist attempted to evoke the sense and significance of the moral law at the roots of a civilized life and its specific places within the Hebraic tradition."Significantly, Cunliffe's synagogue relief work is much less well known than contemporary (and later) works by Herbert Ferber and Ibram Lassaw, about which I have written before. The neglect is probably as much due to the location of the work in Indiana as to the artist's gender. But Cunliffe's work pre-dates synagogue sculpture by Luise Kaish, Louise Nevelson and others by more than a decade.
Leeds, England. "Man-Made Fibres," portland Stone. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1956. Photo: University of Leeds
The pattern of tree is related to the type of patterning the Cunliffe developed in much of her other work through the 1950s. In Egnland, Cunliffe got her first big break in 1951 with two major works for the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank. She also was especially active in Manchester throughout her career. The Leeds exhibit specifically celebrates the 60th anniversary of her work 'Man-Made Fibres' at the University from 1954-56. But Cunliffe is best known in the UK, when she spent the second half of her life, for her BAFTA mask - the English equivalent of the American Oscar statue - presented to the country's leading film performers
The BAFTA award, designed by Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe
Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe continued to make art late in life, even as she suffered form Alzheimer's Disease. She died in 2006. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.